Text and photos by Sanjiva Wijesinha
Sicily, an island off its southern coast, is very much a part of Italy. Yet it remains a land unto itself and distinctly different from the mainland. Centuries of exposure to traders and conquerors — Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards — have all left their mark on the island and its people.
Sicily’s catholic cathedrals — in places like Palermo, Monreale, Syracusa and Cefalu — combine Christian themes with the art and architecture of other religions. Syracusa’s cathedral hides a Greek Doric temple behind its facade; Palermo’s enormous cathedral displays Islamic-style artwork and even has a pillar with a carved Arabic verse from the Koran – and in Cefalu you can discern the vestiges of a Roman painting on one of the massive cathedral pillars, obviously recycled from a former Roman temple.
2. The Palatine Chapel (Capella Palatina)
Located in the former Royal Palace of Palermo which now houses Sicily’s parliament, the Chapel was the creation of Norman King Roger II. Visitors queue to reach the entrance, they enter and look up — and are overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the place. The work of Greek, Byzantine, Norman and Islamic craftsmen (marvel at the delightful Arabic ceiling with richly carved wooden stalactites and the beautiful inlaid marble floor), the Capella is gloriously decorated with shimmering mosaics. Prominent among the images is that of Christ Pantocrator whose eyes (like those of the Mona Lisa) seem to follow the viewer wherever in the chapel he may be.
3. The Valley of the Temples
The massive Doric temples in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Agrigento, burnished gold by the setting sun and hauntingly illuminated after nightfall, are wondrous to behold. Erected in the 5th century BCE, they are reminders that Sicily was once part of Magna Graecia — the great sphere of Greek influenced settlements of the Mediterranean.
From 800 BC Syracusa was a Greek trading centre — at its height one of the most powerful city states of Europe. Make sure you visit the ruins of the Teatro Greco, the spectacular Greek theatre dating back to the 3rd century BCE — one of the largest and best preserved Greek auditoriums anywhere in the world — which is still used for performances.
5. Roman country villa (Villa Romana del Casale)
The island’s Roman heritage is evident in the ruins of tastefully restored villas like the Villa Romana del Casale with its elaborate mosaic-decorated floors — once the country-home of some prominent Roman citizen.
6. Mount Etna
Sicily is famous among other features for earthquakes and volcanoes — Mount Etna in the northeast is still active. Take a tour of the volcano — first by cable car to the top and then in tough four-wheeled drive vehicles along the moonscape-like lava surface — to see from up-close the mouth of the volcano ominously puffing out smoke!
7. Church of Santa Zita
Beautifully decorated with stucco work — a highlight is the depiction of the 1571 Battle of Lepanto — this church in the capital Palermo is well worth a visit.
8. Ceramics in Caltogero
Certain towns in Sicily are famous for their ceramic work. Caltogero’s city square has a wide staircase leading up to the cathedral — with each step of the stairway decorated with ceramic mosaic work.
9. Noto’s Baroque architecture
Almost completely destroyed by the earthquake of 1693, the city of Noto was rebuilt; today it is a fine example of Baroque architecture. The sculptured balconies in many of Noto’s buildings are a treat to behold.
10. Sicilian food
A visit to Sicily is not complete without sampling her food — fresh fruits like blood-red oranges and melons as well as delicacies like marzipan, cannoli (pastries filled with sweet cream cheese) and babbaluci (marinated snails). A proper Sicilian meal takes a couple of hours, with an antipasto of olives, meats, cheeses and sun-dried tomatoes followed by a delicious pasta dish preceding the main course. After the main course come dessert and coffee — all to be taken with a liberal dose of pleasant conversation and good wine!
Visas: Italy falls within the European Union’s Schengen zone, so a visa for any one EU country allows you entry into all the others. More information at http://vfsglobal.com
Getting there: Fly from major Indian airports to Rome’s Fiumicino airport — from where Alitalia has several convenient flights each day to Palermo’s Falcone-Borsellino airport.
Getting around: Unless you are fluent in Italian, booking an organised tour is the most practical method of seeing Sicily. The capital Palermo is worthy of a full day’s walking tour. For the rest of the island, I suggest arranging a six to seven-day coach tour.